The most recent reader survey from MASONRY CONSTRUCTION turned up an intriguing result: About twice as many masonry contractors who responded said they had installed segmental retaining wall (SRW) systems than in any previous survey.

It wasn't a huge number, but we wondered if it was a trend and, if so, what might be driving it.

Masonry contractors had followed different paths into the segmental retaining wall business and were involved in such work to varying degrees.

Dale Howe, president of Mesa, Ariz.-based Howe Masonry, has carved out a niche building retaining walls since the late 1980s. His firm builds with both mortarless SRW systems and conventional concrete masonry, depending on the circumstances and his clients' preference.

His crews are cross-trained to install both kinds of wall. Howe likes having that flexibility. “I tell clients that the finished costs for both types of wall are pretty close, even though the retaining wall blocks cost more per unit,” he says.

“With conventional masonry, we have to dig footings, place rebar, pour concrete and pump grout, and then waterproof the earth side, backfill, and apply some kind of decorative finish to the block. The segmental systems go up much faster. We can dig 100 feet of footings and start building the wall the same day.

“We'll build with conventional masonry when a retaining wall is to go along a property line and our client is on the lower level because it doesn't require us to install the geogrid on the neighbor's property,” Howe says.

Focus on schools

Jim Serowski, who owns JVS Masonry in Denver, took a different approach when moving into the market. Since Serowski started his masonry business four years ago, he has seen a lot of commercial projects being built with precast or tilt-up concrete, stucco, and simulated stone. He decided to focus his masonry business on school construction and then diversify into a market where he sees more growth potential.

“Six months ago, we started a separate division with separate crews to build segmental retaining walls,” Serowski says. “The SRW projects account for about 10% of our work. I expect the trend toward more sustainable development will increase the use of retaining walls in hilly areas like Denver and Colorado. These walls make it possible to terrace land and build on sites that at one time many considered unbuildable or marginal for development.”

Another masonry contractor involved with segmental retaining walls is Horst Masonry, a division of Horst Construction, in Lancaster, Pa. Retaining walls account for less than 10% of its business, and most is on commercial projects where the company is also doing conventional masonry work.